I’ve had a chance to work with many memorable leaders so far in my career. Some I remember because of their kindness, professionalism or innovative spirit. Others I remember less fondly. While the “good leaders” and “bad leaders” occupy space in my memory bank, only a handful of those leaders have altered my career. Just a few made a real impact. Impactful leadership is rare because it’s complicated.
What is Impactful Leadership?
Truly impactful leadership has a dual focus. It moves a team towards a goal while also tending to individual growth. It’s an impressive feat. Leaders who make an impact, recognize and prioritize their team members as much as (or sometimes more than) their end goal. In our results-driven culture, this might sound counterintuitive since making a lasting impact on an individual might jeopardize the success of the project. This kind of impact changes a person for the better no matter how the project turns out. Some may ask, “Why waste energy on anything other than the bottom line?” There aren’t many leaders willing to take that risk! There aren’t many leaders willing to prioritize people over profit. But, those impactful leaders do exist.
So, what does it take to make this kind of a lasting impact? Impactful leaders take their cue from mirrors instead of megaphones. They show rather than tell.
Be a Mirror, Not a Megaphone
Megaphone leaders get the job done. They focus solely on the finish line. They communicate clearly and effectively. By broadcasting their plan, there is never a question about what the team is expected to do. Megaphone leaders can be beneficial to work for because they routinely meet their intended goals, and their teams achieve what they set out to do. But to do that, they give marching orders and require compliance.
As a result, megaphone leaders rarely make a lasting impact. Working under a megaphone leader requires very little critical thinking. Individual contributors are only expected to fulfill their assigned duties. When working under a megaphone leader, teams rarely push boundaries. Instead, they apply a prescribed formula, likely one that has worked well in the past, and keep moving forward. And though there is some satisfaction in meeting a goal under a megaphone leader, there is rarely a feeling a personal accomplishment. Sure, your team “did it,” but did you really achieve anything as an individual? Perhaps you learned how to carry out a plan, but did you stretch yourself? Did you grow?
Leaders who take their leadership cues from a mirror, on the other hand, cultivate a culture of personal development. These leaders help us to see who we are and what we are capable of. Mirror leaders focus on the bigger picture and make space for individual achievement.
Mirror leaders lead by example. They show teams how to meet goals without prescribing a specific path to success. Mirror leaders inspire introspection by individual contributors, and they trust that others can innovate and find solutions to the task at hand. They reward courage and enable team members to try new things. Mirror leaders aren’t afraid to fail if it means their team members have learned something new and feel empowered. Mirror leaders see team members’ potential. They believe each person is capable of great things (even when she can’t see that for herself yet). Working under a mirror leader can be challenging, but it is ultimately rewarding.
Impactful Leaders Show Rather Than Tell
Though it might be simple to work under a megaphone leader who requires little and always delivers success, it rarely results in career-changing, lasting impact. The leaders who have impacted me most significantly are unforgettable. They acted as a mirror and made parts of me visible that I couldn’t see. They challenged me. They pushed me. And they showed me what I was capable of achieving even when that vision was blurry to me.